The average shot length (ASL) of a typical film has shrunk dramatically over the decades. 1933’s Madame Bovary has an ASL of 22.8 seconds. Compare this to 2010’s Iron Man 2, which clocks in at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 1.9 seconds. Fortunately, some modern filmmakers will, on occasion, bypass our A.D.D.-riddled culture to create sweepingly memorable one-take wonders. Below are the standouts: lengthy, intricately choreographed scenes with nary a cut to their name. To boot, they’re brimming with wickedly intense butt-kicking mayhem. Who says action and frenetic editing need to go hand in hand?
So take Jean-Claude Van Damme (playing himself!) and place him in a Dog Day Afternoon-style movie. One that’s as much in French as it is in black and white (a sentence I’ve never typed before). The end result should be sheer awfulness; instead, it’s the greatest work of the guy’s career. The opening scene has ol’ J.C. quasi-spoofing his checkered action star past with a badass, one-take three-minute battle. Replete with martial arts, gun fights, and ‘splosions aplenty, naturally. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, and one that sets the stage for all the emotional, character-driven stuff that rears its head later on (yep, I ain’t kidding).
‘The Secret In Their Eyes’
Having caught this film in theatres, the only thing I discovered was the secret of the inside of my eyelids. That is to say, I nodded off several times. Hey, it was a dull, pretentiously-named Spanish movie and I’d carbo-loaded on popcorn — don’t judge me. Nonetheless, I was still hit with some serious ‘wow factor’ courtesy of this inspired flyover-style tracking shot. Sure, there’s a bit of CGI involved here and there, but the end result is like nothing you’ve ever seen in cinema. Crazy enough, the clip below doesn’t do full justice to this one-take sequence: the full version continues — on foot — as a dramatic chase scene throughout the soccer stadium’s interior. That’s right: for a brief snapshot of time, even soccer is made exciting.
Many cinefiles consider John Woo’s 1992 action film one of Hong Kong’s greatest exports. Chow Yun-fat busts a serious move as police Inspector ‘Tequila’ Yuen, a man fearless not just in the face of danger, but in the face of three-and-a-half-minute tracking shots. Like with JCVD, there are shoot-outs galore and a whole lotta carnage, although this time it all goes down in a hospital, which is probably the best place to get shot when you really think about it. Even better: the nail-biting action takes place, uninterrupted, over two floors. Gotta love when cameramen and elevators team up for the greater good.
I’ll be honest: I’ve never seen this film, nor do I have any idea what it’s about. And you know what? It doesn’t matter, because all you need to know is this: some dude runs up several floors of a hotel atrium, taking out a truckload of bad guys with crazy martial arts ‘n parkour ‘n such. To shoot a scene like this in several cuts would be an impressive enough accomplishment. Instead the director — some dude I’ve never heard of — does it in a singular take. You know, like some kind of power-drunk madman. Even the slightest glitch (lighting issue, faulty prop, unconvincing punch) and it’s “back to ones, everyone.” Daunting stuff indeed.
‘Children of Men’
Director Alfonso Cuarón loves him some awe-inspiring single-shot sequences, and there’s no dearth of them here in Children of Men, his genius dystopian sci-fi(ish) masterpiece. Here are two. #1: Theo (Clive Owen), caught in the middle of a raging gun battle. It’s the longest take in the film, and at six minutes (!), one of the longest in film history. Each re-shoot needed a full five hours of set-up time. Alas, the clip ain’t available on YouTube (damn you, Universal Pictures!). Fortunately, #2 is nearly as good: a hair-raising ambush on a country road (four-minutes long), which sees our camera popping up in near-impossible places. It’s a tad NSFW, so break out the ol’ headphones, compadres. Fun game: try and figure out how the hell Cuarón filmed that 360-degree action inside the car. Craaaaaazy.